Authorities arrested 16 people suspected in a stolen car ring that ripped off hundreds of high-end luxury cars worth $15.5 million from Long Island, New York City and surrounding areas, officials said Wednesday.
Two loosely affiliated gangs were able to get their hands on car keys for Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Range Rover, Lexus and Audi models, police said. Once stolen, the vehicles were shipped to purchasers who took them to the South or, in some cases, shipped them to Israel and the United Arab Emirates, investigators said.
More than 300 cars are thought to have been stolen from a number of locations in the metropolitan area, including Locust Valley, Sands Point, Westchester County, Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, said Inspector Joseph Kenny of the NYPD auto crimes unit.
An indictment filed in State Supreme Court in Queens charged the defendants, most of whom reside in the city, with stealing 48 high-end vehicles worth a total of $2.4 million, said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown in a statement announcing the charges.
The arrests took place on Monday and Tuesday. Two suspects, Shlomo Koun, 22, of Brooklyn, and Alexander "Bori" Santiago, 37, of the Bronx, were considered fugitives, said a spokeswoman for Brown.
Though new security systems have helped cut car theft by as much as 90 percent in New York City in the last 20 years, the suspects in the latest case used a number of creative methods to get their hands on actual car keys, Kenny said.
Sometimes, careless vehicle owners would leave their keys in cars while running a quick errand. But in other cases, members of the theft ring would steal keys -- and the cars -- from repair shops or dealerships, Kenny told reporters. Sometimes, the gang would break in to a car rental company, steal one set of keys, put a GPS tracking device in a rental car and later track the vehicle so it could be stolen off the street, he said.
"These guys were very innovative," Kenny said, who cautioned that "car owners need to treat their keys the way they handle their iPhones."
Police suspect that members of the conspiracy, which they estimate operated for about three years, played such specialized roles as replacing VIN numbers and securing fake title documents.
Along with the car theft conspiracy charges, three defendants were charged with narcotics offenses, including Albert Natanov, 29, of Flushing, who police said had enough cash to purchase a $6,000 gold-plated iPhone, a Bentley and a Mercedes. He was ordered held without bail, prosecutors said.